Did financial pressure from parents lead to the decline of liberal arts majors?

An NBC THINK opinion piece counters the narrative that millennials are losing interest in the arts and humanities, pointing instead to wariness among parents, who, amid steep college costs, are increasingly subsidizing—and steering—their children’s college pursuits. The author relays several college students’ experiences with parents who, seeing the humanities as unprofitable, threatened to (or did) cut off financial support if the students majored in fields such as English, history, or religion.

Parental skepticism of humanities majors

Commenting on the dynamic, Matt Gabriele, head of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, said that many of these parents have a “very practical view” that college majors strictly dictate students’ future fields of employment. Rather than considering “the variety of careers that you might take from majoring in the humanities, or the evidence that employers want to hire liberal arts majors,” these parents picture history and religion majors leading to careers as historians and priests, Gabriele says.

Evidence, however, suggests that these fears of unemployable humanities majors are largely unfounded. A recent article in The Atlantic, for instance, explored the difference in median income and unemployment between students who majored in the humanities and in STEM fields, finding that the gap “seems to be no more than the difference between residents of Virginia and North Carolina” and is substantially smaller than the gender wage gap.

The absence of validating evidence signals that parents’ bias against the arts and humanities may stem more from “prejudice than…actual job prospects,” the NBC THINK piece suggests.

Declining humanity degrees, climbing tuition costs

Parents’ wariness of liberal arts degrees isn’t necessarily new, but in the past, “losing parental support for college wasn’t necessarily insurmountable.” The cost of college, however, has ballooned—rising from approximately $15,000 a year in 1987 to more than $34,000 today at private colleges, and from $3,000 in 1987 to almost $10,000 today at public colleges, The Atlantic writes. Most students, faced with tuition that cannot be sufficiently mitigated with a part-time job, and with the prospect of massive debt after graduation, can no longer afford to choose a major against their parents’ wishes.

Meanwhile, the proportion of English, history, philosophy, and language degrees awarded at American universities fell from 22 percent to 4 percent among women between 1967 and 2015; that figure fell from 14 percent to 4 percent among men across that time period, The Atlantic found.

Gabriele suggests that schools could improve their outreach to parents about the value of liberal arts majors in the job market but acknowledges that the high cost of college will continue to prevent students from making choices independent of their parents’ preferences.

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